In raids before dawn yesterday, police arrested dozens of baggage handlers working for the airline and a smaller number of employees of Lufthansa Sky Chefs, which is contracted to supply meals to the carrier. No managers, pilots or flight attendants with the airline have been implicated.
The arrests were the culmination of a two-year under-cover investigation led by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and dubbed "Operation Ramp Rat" - after the slang name sometimes used for the tarmac crew who movebaggage into and out of the bellies of jet liners.
According to investigators, the ground personnel arrested yesterday had routinely abused their special security clearances to launder the illicit cargoes through Miami Inter- national Airport. As well as cocaine, the ring allegedly handled other drugs such as marijuana, and weapons.
The drugs were usuallybrought into Miami inside items of baggage from countries including Bolivia, Chile and Colombia. Sometimes there were concealed in food trolleys and meal trays. Trays that contained cocaine rather than coffee creamer presumably never made it to the seats of passengers.
The scam was broken by a classic sting, when agents posed as drugs suppliers and arranged for some 660lb (300kg) of fake cocaine to be handled by ring members. The agents also negotiated for the distribution of explosives and illicit weapons.
Most of the 58 employees arrested early yesterday were seized at their homes, though some were rounded up at Miami airport. They were expected to appear in court late yesterday to face formal charges.
All appeared to have been leading double lives, drawing legitimate salaries while earning considerably higher sums from their illicit activities. Federal officials have long been worried that Miami airport, as the main United States gateway from Latin America, was a hive of drugs smuggling. American Airlines is the biggest carrier serving Latin America.
Investigators believe that the ring members would identify the bags containing the drugs at the moment of each jet's arrival and would then pull them aside on the asphalt. Bags containing drugs were taken to a domestic terminal or even to the parked cars of ring members to avoid inspection by Customs.
The ring members were allegedly also active in distributing the narcotics to cities along the eastern seaboard of the United States. When not working for the airline, they would work as mules, taking consignments of drugs in personal baggage to cities including New York and Baltimore. They would often fly at little or no cost, because of company discounts. To avoid security inspections at Miami, they would use employee-only doorways to reach gate areas.
"Basically these employees were smuggling drugs and distributing them themselves when they were off duty by flying, using their employees' passes, through the United States," Bet Eaten, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, commented.
American Airlines, which has agreements with British Airways on shared landing rights, said in a statement that the ring only involved a fraction of its workforce and that it had co-operated with the government in its investigation.
"While we are disturbed that a small group of employees were part of this smuggling ring, their activities have been under federal government and company surveillance for quite some time. We will continue our co- operative efforts with law enforcement officials," the airline said.
There was no comment from Sky Chefs, which is partly owned by a unit of Lufthansa, the German flag carrier.Reuse content